trouble the waters: “”when you’re not on the mountaintop”

social justice

Scripture
Galatians 3:19-29
19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. 20Now a mediator involves more than one party; but God is one.
21 Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. 22But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Sermon
The epistle to the Galatians is not actually a letter to a church—
to a particular congregation,
but one to an unspecified number of churches in a specific geographic area
in what is today Turkey.
This was an area Paul had been through (Galatians 1:8, 9, 11)—
in which he had been with people in conversation—
people to whom he had introduced the story of Jesus within the story of God—
and some of these communities of faith
would, no doubt, been ones he helped establish.

But then, as was his custom, Paul had moved on,
and now, down the road, he was hearing news back from Galatia—
news that disturbed him.

Because other missionaries had come into Galatia after Paul—
Christian Jews—Jewish Christians—and had assumed a teaching authority
within these congregations.
We don’t know specifically very much of what they were teaching,
and what we know is inferred from Paul’s response to them,
which is always a bit tricky.
You have to be careful,
but we do know they taught observance of the law (Galatians 4:21)—
the whole Law (Galatians 5:3),
and so they advocated following the Jewish calendar (Galatians 4:10),
maybe keeping the dietary expectations (Galatians 2:11-14),
circumcision (Galatians 5:2).

Paul was disturbed by all this,
and so, as was his custom, he wrote a letter
and really let the Galatians have it:
“I am astonished,” he writes, “that you are deserting the one who called you
in the grace of Christ and are turning to another gospel” (Galatians 1:6).
That’s strong—another gospel!
Then he calls them foolish and bewitched (Galatians 3:1).

The question with which we have to wrestle is this:
why would he make such a big deal about this?
They were all Christians, right?
What’s wrong with keeping Jewish customs?
Jesus was a practicing Jew.
Christianity developed out of Judaism.
Ecumenism—interfaith respect and dialogue and all that, don’t you know?

It certainly wasn’t about hanging on to a Jewish heritage as Jews—
maintaining that sense of identity,
as these were Gentiles who were being told, as Christians,
they also had to adhere to Jewish customs, rules, expectations.

For Paul, what was critical
was the problem in a grace-based system
of having a rules-based structure.
It changes your focus
from faith to obedience—
from what God does in grace to human faithfulness to the law,
and you end up with not just a different emphasis,
but a completely different foundation.

As followers of God in the way of Jesus,
we do not rely on the law for what a personal relationship with Jesus offers,
and that’s not the juxtaposition of the letter of the law with the Spirit of the law,
but with the presence of the Spirit.

We rely not on what we do, but on who God is,
and we can allow no confusion about this.

Okay, you might well ask, but how does Paul get off on knocking rules?
He issued a few of his own, didn’t he?
In fact, while he may say here,
“there is no longer slave or free,”
what about when he wrote “slaves be obedient to your masters?”
That’s in Colossians (Colossians 3:22).

He may say “there is no male or female” here,
but what about when he wrote, “women, be subject to your husbands?”
That’s in Colossians too (Colossians 3:18)—
or “Women, be silent in church?”
That’s 1 Corinthians (1 Corinthians 14:34).

What if they’re not rules?

I have no trouble imagining Paul writing different letters to different churches
because different churches were dealing with different contexts—
different specifics.
I can well imagine different expectations for different communities of faith.

I have no problem envisioning Paul
thinking of one church—the particulars of one church
the particularities—the peculiarities of one church—
writing them a letter saying one thing,
and thinking of another church and their peculiarities—
writing them a letter saying something completely different.
That is not a problem to me.
That is respect.
That is truth.

But then, in Bible study and preaching,
we tend not to look to a specific letter to a specific church,
but to a sacred text,
and never think we might be looking at contexts
and assuming we know what he thought in general,
instead of what he thought in particular contexts—
in particular congregations.
So the question to my mind is not what Paul said
that we accept as authoritative,
but amidst what all Paul said, what sounds most like Jesus?
What fits best into the trajectory of truth and grace?

Of course, I also have no trouble whatsoever
imagining Paul getting caught up in his rhetoric!
Dealing with Jews and Gentiles,
“in Jesus there are no Jews, no Gentiles”—he’s practicing.
“That’s what I need to affirm.
That’s the key affirmation in this particular argument I’m making.
But it would be more powerful in a list—
a list of three.
There is no slave nor free; there is no male nor female.”

Those are not his points—
not part of his argument.
Did he understand them as true implication though?

Writing from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama,
Martin Luther King, Jr. lamented the rhetoric of the white moderate
that was not lived into and up to.
“First, I must confess that over the last few years
I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion
that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom
is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner,
but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice;
who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension
to a positive peace which is the presence of justice;
who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek,
but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action” ….

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill
is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.
Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
in Why We Can’t Wait (New York: A Mentor Book, 1963] 84-5).

It reminds me in some ways
of the continued talk about and pride in the United States of America
being a land of freedom and justice and equality
when it is manifestly not true—not for too many.

There is not one story of this country.
There are millions.
And most of them are not the story we like to tell of this country.

We have explored over the past few weeks,
the truths of mass incarceration,
the playground to prison pipeline,
the contexts that limit opportunity on the one hand
and privilege some on the other.
We’ve seen the way this systemic racism
shapes fears, an assumed superiority and inferiority.

Bryan Stevenson, in his powerful book Just Mercy,
on our country’s mass incarceration problem—
our problem of systemic injustice in our justice system,
asserts “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done”
(Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy [New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014] 290).
Conversely, of course, each of us is more
than the best thing we’ve ever done too. Right?
So are we rather what we’re accustomed to doing?
What we do most?
What we strive for? Commit to?
If our dreams are of a vision of an alternative to the status quo
is that enough,
or just another part of a great hypocrisy?
Because it depends on what it is for which we truly work, right?
The dream we struggle to make flesh
rather than the escapist fantasy that sounds good.

So what I would most like to imagine
is Paul, as someone thoroughly shaped by his time and context—
bound by the prejudices, the biases, the priorities of his time and place,
but with a transcendent vision—
inspired by the Spirit of God at work in and through him,
that allowed him … on occasion … momentarily,
to escape what shaped him—
that not only inspired him but changed him.

I also want to be clear,
claiming to be beyond the rules of the law,
it doesn’t mean you don’t do what the rules tell you to.
It means you don’t need the rules to do what the rules tell you to.

The first of the Johannine epistles is one of my favorites—
in part because of the priority of love
without a list of particular rules for what that means.
So from the second chapter:
But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness,
walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go,
because the darkness has brought on blindness (1 John 2:11).

From the third chapter:
For this is the message you have heard from the beginning,
that we should love one another. …
How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods
and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech,
but in truth and action. And by this we will know
that we are from the truth …. (1 John 3:11-19a)

From the fourth chapter:
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God,
and God abides in them.
Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars;
for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen,
cannot love God whom they have not seen.
The commandment we have from him is this:
those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also
(1 John 4:16b-21).

The writer of 1 John, or any subsequent editor,
felt no need—no need—to specify what love meant
in different situations and contexts—
felt no need for an elaborate, extensive set of rules and statements.

The church has tended (and tends)
to make everyone else’s business
our business,
instead of seeing our business
as everyone else.
We want to focus on people’s business instead of people.
It’s a way of keeping distance—
choosing the rules
instead of conversations and relationships.

The people who in the name of God
have turned their backs on family and neighbors
because they’ve been taught—
because they’ve allowed themselves to believe,
that a rule is more important than a person
betray—betray the Jesus who would sit down to eat with anyone—
not to figure what was wrong with them,
but to remind them that God loved them—
to remind them how right they are.

In some ways, this text, for our days
might better be phrased:
In the unity of Jesus,
there are, in fact, Jews and Greeks, and they are very different.
There are, in truth, those enslaved and those free,
and they too are very different.
There are men and women,
and they too are very different.
There are, in fact more categories of being than we know to name.
There are distinctive galore,
and they lead to different ways of experiencing the world—
different perspectives—
different lives.

We know this.
We are different—
very different.
The contexts in which we grew up are all different.
Some of us have defining experiences others of us don’t.
Some of us grew up in households of color.
Some of us grew up in other cultures.
Some of us grew up with a language other than English.
While I dare say all of us grew up wrestling with our identity,
some of us had to wrestle with gender identity—
and sexual identity.
Some of us grew up marginalized in this culture.

Our differences can make us strong.
They can make us richer—deeper—more beautiful.
They do not have to divide us.
If we do not allow them to divide us—
if we do not express fear in division—
if we work—will work—at not assuming
that any of our particular experience is the norm—
if we live trusting that what binds us is bigger than what divides us.

Beverly Daniel Tatum,
author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together
in the Cafeteria?,
writes of the development of racial identity
and about how that can be a healthy process
and an unhealthy one.
She also points out that Black kids don’t have a choice
about whether or not to wrestle with
and come to terms with their racial identity in our culture,
while White kids can pretend it’s not an issue for them.

We have a verse today that speaks to a great equality.
We can argue about whether or not it’s ever been lived up to.
That’s a deflection.
The question is do we try and live up to it.
Do we acknowledge what’s in the way,
and that it’s often us in the way—
our benefits—our privilege?

I read an article this week about a teacher
who designed a class project
in which the class was divided into groups,
each with its own responsibility.
But the grade was based on every group succeeding.
It’s kind of modeled after mission control for a rocket launch.
Everyone has their responsibility,
but everyone has to succeed for the emission to succeed.

He consistently observed in groups dealing with a problem,
boys arguing about it,
and girls working on it—
solving it,
but not being noticed
and not being assertive either.
He pointed that out:
“Not one of you,” he said to the boys, “saw what Kristen did …
While all of you were arguing, she built a design better than all of yours.
Kristen, why did you take it apart?”
“They were arguing,” she said, “so I thought their designs were better.”
None of them were, but they were willing to fight.
And one of them was eventually chosen,
because the boy who designed it was confident, assertive,
and most of all kept fighting.
In the end, Kristen voted for his design, too.
That’s a tragic lesson I never meant to teach:
Who the beneficiaries are of our cultural biases.
In the US, he who argues loudest and longest reigns victorious,
regardless of the collateral damage.

Make no mistake, we face the challenge of our culture.

54 years ago this past Monday,
Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech
from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.
And so this past Monday, I was at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
for the 1000 Ministers March for Justice
(for which there were actually 3000 ministers registered—
and that’s not preacher counting, don’t you know!)
marching from the memorial to the Department of Justice
because we’re still dreaming—
because we still fall so far short of the dream—
because I wasn’t sure how to be in the midst of a worship series on racial justice
and not be a part of reaffirming that dream and that dreamer.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream for his children—
a dream that transcended his context and theirs.
Paul had a dream for how people might relate as Christians
that transcended his context and theirs.
And the question is not really
do we dream dreams that big—
dreams that transcend our circumstances?
The question is not do our young men and women prophecy—
our young and old see visions and dream dreams?
Not even do we encourage them to dream big?
But rather do we expect them to—
and not only to dream, but to risk following through
on the bigness of those dreams?

Do we facilitate possibility or justify what is?

As we conclude the worship series,
having really just touched on
the beginnings of this conversation,
we’re sounding a call
for those interested in/invested in this conversation—
to keep it going—
to keep reading—to keep talking—cultivating relationships—
keeping us informed—
exploring what our next steps can be?

Michael Eric Dyson, Professor of Sociology at Georgetown,
author of All the Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America,
baptist pastor,
recommends White folks setting up IRA’s—
individual reparation accounts,
or, if we’re serious about repentance being more than feeling bad,
individual repentance accounts.

I’ll be talking to the service ministry about that one!

What are our next steps?
Because surely as we finish a worship series,
we don’t want to one day (maybe in 54 years)
look back to see us standing still.

I have a dream—
nurtured by dreamers through our history
of a place where anyone can come—anyone—
sit down with us at the table
and be welcomed—
be celebrated—
be included.

You’d think that wouldn’t be such a hard dream ….

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trouble the waters: “a religion not spoken in someone’s heart language is despicable to God” or, “a religion spoken heart to heart reflects the heart of God”

social justice

Scripture
Acts 2:1-12a
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’

Sermon
If you’ve been listening,
you have probably heard something like the wind
that has swept through—is sweeping through
many of our cities—many of our communities—
filling, in truth, the entire country,
as a story has been divided among us,
like distinct flames of one fire—
a story we thought we knew, now heard in another language.

Over and over again now, if you’ve been listening,
in the news ever-unfolding, in documentaries,
in conversations at church and in the public square, in books,
in our own relationships with friends, colleagues, and family,
we’ve heard, over and over again, the story of our country,
but not in a tongue many of us recognize.
Not a story of opportunity, but oppression.
Not of freedom, but incarceration.
Not of fairness, but injustice.
Not of bravery, but fear.
Not of achieving on merit, but exploitation.
Not of respect, but prejudice.
Not of a life open to what you make of it,
but a life within the constraints of a fixed system—
rigged to benefit a few.
If you’ve been listening ….

We did not celebrate Pentecost this year.
I think we were in the midst of 1 Peter at the time.
But it occurred to me planning this worship series
on the work of racial and social justice,
that the Acts Pentecost text might just fit.

Not only because of all the different languages,
but also because of all the people
from all the nations under heaven, we read,
and that word we translate “nations”
comes from the same Greek root
from which we get our words “ethnic” and “ethnicity.”

Our text begins, literally, when the day of Pentecost was fulfilled—
not when it had come—when it was fulfilled
(John B. Polhill, Acts in The New American Commentary
[Nashville: Broadman, 1992] 96).
You probably know this, many of you—I’m reminding you,
Pentecost was a Jewish celebration before it was a Christian one.
It’s the Greek name, literally, “the fiftieth day,”
“for a day-long harvest festival more commonly known as the ‘Feast of Weeks’ …
fifty days after Passover. Pentecost was one of three pilgrimage feasts
when the entire household of Israel gathered in Jerusalem”
(Robert, W. Wall, The Acts of the Apostles
in The New Interpreter’s Bible [Nashville: Abingdon, 2002] 53).

Originally, the Feast of Weeks, was celebration of the spring harvest.
Faithful Jews, caring for their crops,
would tie a reed around the first fruit of each species to ripen.
at harvest time, those identified fruits would be picked
placed in baskets and processed to Jerusalem
handed to priests to be presented before the altar.

So celebrating Pentecost involved anticipation,
but also the work toward that which was anticipated.

In the faith story told, we move from Passover’s celebration
of the children of Israel being led out of the Egypt—out of bondage
to, 50 days later, Pentecost’s celebration
of God giving the children of Israel the Torah at Sinai—
in the movement from freedom to covenant—
from the escape of oppression to a mutuality of relationship and expectation.

No one’s real sure how long Pentecost’s connection to Sinai has been around—
whether it goes all the way back to the earliest harvest celebrations,
but it’s interesting, don’t you think?
In terms of agriculture, Pentecost was cyclically experienced,
and so remembered,
and in terms of faith story, cyclically remembered—and so, re-experienced.

If you’ve been listening to what sounds like the wind,
to what divides our story as a nation,
you’ve heard questions about the poisonous fruit harvested from our history—
about how much of our economy (even today)—
how much of even today’s wealth
goes back to the forced labor—
the inhumane exploitation of predominantly African people.
If you’ve been listening, you’ve heard questions
about the principle we claim of freedom—
fundamental questions like freedom for whom—and freedom from what?

On the day Pentecost was fulfilled, what was fulfilled?
Covenantal relationship? Mutuality of expectation?
Trust in the sufficiency of God’s provision and grateful response?
Awareness of and freedom from all forms of bondage and oppression?
It’s like looking at a fire which is always to see—
to be captivated by ever new flickering divided tongues of flame.

They were all together, we read, in one place.
And we’re not sure if we’re talking about the 12 apostles
or the 120 believers—both referenced in Acts, chapter one (Acts 1:15).
Nor do we know if we’re talking about that upper room
also mentioned in Acts, chapter one (Acts 1:13).
Almost as if the story is bigger than who or where.

And from heaven there came something like the sound of the wind.
And the sound of something like the wind, we read,
filled the house where they were sitting.
And they were themselves filled with the Spirit.

And there was something like fire—
like there was something like the sound of wind—
as if our language can but approximate,
but it approximates “various OT theophanies where God comes down
and there is fire on the mountain and Moses or someone
is given a word to speak for the Lord
(Exod. 19:18; 2 Sam. 22:16; Ezek. 13:13)” (Witherington, 132).
And they were, all of a sudden, speaking different languages.

May I read to you an account of Sinai?
The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo,
writing well before the time of Luke,
had this to say about the giving of the Law:
“Then from the midst of the fire that streamed from heaven
there sounded forth to their utter amazement a voice,
for the flame became the articulate speech
in the language familiar to the audience’ ” (Witherington, 131).
So important to remember always,
however you understand inspiration,
that Scripture comes out of a wider context.

And they (whoever all they were)
poured out of their house (wherever it was)
overflowing with the story of God.
And a puzzled crowd grew at the sound—
and notice—notice, it’s not the sound of the wind from heaven
that draws and puzzles the crowd.
It’s the sound of a story told by people.
So important—
the crowd gathered not in response to God,
but in response to people who responded to God.

Now the crowd consists, we’re told,
of the people from all the nations under heaven
who nonetheless lived in Jerusalem.
Our text is clear. these are not people from other lands
in town for the festival, but people those from all those lands,
who had moved to or retired to Jerusalem.
Sometimes you move away from where you’re from
to be where you want to go.

So we might note, amidst difference,
there is commonality, right?
The people of all nations are here united in their heritage—
their ethnic or their faith heritage—
(those are different, by the way—
born a Jew, Jew by choice)—either way,
they are all gathered together as Jews in Jerusalem
to celebrate Pentecost.
They are all at home in Jerusalem.

If you’ve been listening, you, like I,
have heard in the news—in justifications of hate—in pulpits—
the story of our faith heritage—our faith home,
but not in a tongue I recognize.
Distorted and used to justify abomination:
greed, prejudice, the idolatry of the self-made man,
separation, hate.
If you’ve been listening ….

Back then, among these in Jerusalem,
in the land of their faith story—
in the land of the language they learned as part of their heritage,
they heard the language of the streets they grew up on.
How is it that these ignorant Galileans, they wondered,
are speaking the languages of the nations?
That’s kind of a prejudiced thing to say.
You’d picked up on that, right?
If you’ve been listening.

They’re not puzzling about what they heard.
What they heard was familiar.
They couldn’t figure out how it was they were hearing it from these Galileans!

So now I’d also like to invite you to consider this story
from the perspective precisely of those Galileans—
presumably some of whom—maybe most of whom—
had spent years with Jesus.
I invite you to consider the implications of not just a story
being told in another language,
but your story being told in a language not yours.
What happens when your story is told in another language?—
one you don’t understand?
What happens when you have to trust someone else
with the telling of your story—
when their experience—their perspective is different?

If you’re listening, it’s hard.
It’s challenging—disturbing—uncomfortable.
Because what you’ll hear is the clear assertion:
you don’t get to tell the story in just your language.
And you have to pay attention to how you react when you read
theologian Ben Sanders III’s chapter, “How Did ‘We’ Get ‘Here’?”
in our Trouble the Water book,
in which he writes of our white supremacist country
and our white supremacist society
(Ben Sanders, III, How Did “We” Get “Here”?
in Michael-Ray Mathews, Marie Clare Onwubuariri, Cody J. Sanders, eds.,
Trouble the Water [Macon: Nurturing Faith, Inc., 2017] 11-18)—
which got my hackles up.
Maybe it gets yours up too.
Take a minute though to consider—
to sit with it—think about it.

We proudly name of the high ideals—the lofty principles
of our founding documents—the Declaration of Independence
and the Constitution: “We the people” … “We hold these truths
to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ….”

Of course, there was never anything inclusive
about that use of the word “men,” was there?
It always meant men.
Women were not included.
And the Constitution itself (Article One Section Three to be specific)
counted slaves as three fifths of a person.
We, the white men, hold these truths to be self-evident—
that all white men are created equal.
That 3/5 percentage was not repealed until 1868.
Native Americans were not granted citizenship until 1924.
The Indian Civil Rights Act wasn’t passed until 1968.

If we stick to what was meant (in our founding documents),
it doesn’t mean what we need it to,
but if it means what we want it to,
we haven’t lived up to it,
and there is a clear trajectory from the best of who we could be
to the worst of who we are.

I can put that another way:
we can react to the worst we fear,
or we can work for the best we can dream,
and there’s no getting around that there’s an element of choice to this—
do you choose fear, or do you choose hope?
Fear doesn’t require much of you; hope is work.

Now, do we reject the ideology of white supremacy?
Absolutely.
The hopes and agenda of white supremacists?
Yes.
The benefits of racism?
Well, not when you put it that way?
The benefits of a system that is set up with most of us as beneficiaries?
Maybe.
Do we reject the systems?
How?

We reject individual acts of prejudice.
What? Overt acts? Violence? Of course.
What about racist jokes? Racist assumptions?
Do we stand up against those? Speak out against those?
Because if you’re listening, they’re all around us.
I hope we do—reject all that.
But because we don’t say such things—make such jokes,
do we get to reject the idea that we’re racist?

I’ve been challenged not only by the idea that ours is a racist society
(because it is not set up to benefit all—and there’s no question about that),
but also by the idea that no minority group
can be identified as racist in our culture at large—
prejudiced, yes, but not racist—
because racism, I’m learning, is prejudice plus power.
So do we acknowledge our complicity not in individual acts,
but in the system that benefits us and betrays others?
We’ve been confessing it in unison for the past six weeks.
Do we mean it?

As along as we’re facing challenges,
I challenge us to absolutely reject generalities phrased as absolutes.
As Michael Eric Dyson puts it in his book
Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America,
a brutally beautiful book,
“criticizing police brutality is said to be hating law enforcement.
Sitting during the national anthem is said to be hating America.
This sophomoric approach will remain a roadblock
to genuine racial engagement
until it is replaced by a deeper, more humane,
more sophisticated understanding of the issue of race”
(Michael Eric Dyson, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America
[New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017] 120).

Oh, if you’ve been listening, even if you’re not into football,
you’ve probably heard a lot of criticism of Colin Kapernaek.
I don’t follow football enough to be able to evaluate his skill as a player.
But the reaction to his kneeling during the singing of our anthem
is a disgrace to our own ideals.
Uncritical worship of—or even respect for—our flag or our national anthem
is nothing but hypocrisy in a culture that does not live up to—
does not commit to live up to—
the best of what they both represent—
or what we like to think they mean until we actually have to live up to it.
There are people who put their lives on the line for what we compromise.
Who is showing disrespect?
Not the one pointing this out.

Remember in our Acts text how they were all Jews in Jerusalem?
It’s easy enough, in theory,
to go back far enough to find a commonality—
the Jewish faith heritage, in the case of our text.
Or, maybe you’ve seen the meme online:
there’s only one race—the human race?
The problem is not finding a commonality,
it’s all the differences that divide us within that commonality.

And we are invested in a binding commonality—
because we think that’s the way to deal with difference.
And I don’t mean to totally discount that.
I remember as a youth visiting a French speaking worship in Paris,
and thinking, “I’m not going to understand a word.”
But then I remembered I knew the French word for God, Dieu,
and the French pronunciation of Jesus, Jesu,
and you’d be surprised how often Dieu and Jesu showed up!
I don’t mean to discount the power of commonality,
but that’s not what we get in our story.
I mean, maybe it seems like we do—
everyone hearing in their own language the stories of God’s deeds of power.
Many languages, but one story, right?

But give our sacred texts some credit.
Give them their depth.
Allow them their nuance.
Trust inspiration.

The story, we read, was told in different languages.
We’ve noted it enough—just in translations from Hebrew to English—
Greek to English, how often a translation is misleading—
how often a translation is flat out wrong.
And sometimes, admittedly, it’s bias.
It’s imposing a certain way of understanding the text on the text.
But sometimes it’s just because it’s a translation.

One of my favorite writers is the German author, Rainer Maria Rilke,
and there are some wonderful translations of his work into English,
but many of the English poems are essentially different poems.
The translators tried to retain some essential image or idea,
but it’s not the same—the rhythm and sound of the words can’t be the same,
and the meaning can’t always either.

It’s a familiar text, our Acts 2 passage—a familiar story—
often construed as the birth of the church—
when the church was defined and unified.
But what if, instead of celebrating something cohesive and defined,
we celebrated the risk of setting—
the trust in setting—something free?

If you’ve been listening to the story of our country,
you’ve heard the weeping—
children weeping for their parents—
parents weeping for their children—
grandparents, friends, neighbors.
If you haven’t, you’re not listening,
you’ve probably heard the disgust, which is disturbing—
the rage, which is scary.
But the point is not to deny it or explain it away,
rather to acknowledge the reasons for it—
and our complicity in those reasons—unintentional maybe, but still.
It doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not we’re good people,
it has to do with the systems in which we live.
In our various spheres of influence, we must stop
invalidating the stories of others
because they don’t tell the story we do.
And we must stop being so damned afraid
(Fear damns. I’m using that theologically!).

Like Scripture, our country gifted us
with a dream to which we have never caught up—
a dream we have never lived into in its fullness.
And those who, long ago, sought words to put to these dreams
conveyed so much more than they knew—
so much more even than they meant.
The dreams of our faith and our country
left us with room to grow—
room to grow into the work of that which we anticipate—
room to grow beyond everything for which we’ve settled—
beyond every compromise that cheapened the possibility of the dream—
that took of its depths and made something shallow—
that tasted its complex richness and chose cheap and easy.

In the winds of change
sweeping through life and culture—
in the fires of discontent and conflict—
in the confessions and in the arguments—
in repentance and defiance—
in the movement from all forms of bondage
to ever greater mutuality and freedom and covenant,
the Spirit of God speaks—
whispers—weeps—rages—shouts,
“You are each one of you my child.
In all your beautiful distinctions.
Do you not see,
created in my image,
blessed and loved,
and entrusted to each other,
to deny that is to deny me?

If you’re listening ….”

trouble the waters: “a religion that keeps people out is despicable to God” or “a religion of welcome and inclusion reflects the heart of God”

social justice

Scripture
Acts 8:26-40
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.’
The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Sermon
Most of you know the story.
As Paul ravaged the church in Jerusalem,
the leadership scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
Philip, one of the seven deacons “of good standing,
full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3),
ended up in Samaria.
And being in Samaria, he preached in Samaria (Acts 8:1-14),
and being Philip, preached effectively.
That’s the immediate background to our story.

But our story begins with an angel of the Lord saying to Philip,
‘Get up and go towards the south
to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’
(This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went.

But that’s not where our story begins either.
A lot of stories begin before we know they begin,
and, by the way, not knowing a story begins
before you’re familiar with it—(or in it)
is a sign of privilege.

So the story actually begins with an Ethiopian government official,
an African, on his way home from Jerusalem.
Many stories begin in Africa before we’re ever a part of them,
but we don’t tend to think of that.
He had been in Jerusalem—
had taken some personal time—
had come to worship, we read.
So our story today actually begins before anything we’re told,
with this Ethiopian man somehow having heard the stories of God—
been profoundly affected by the stories of God—
the presence of God—the grace of God—
the initiative of God in Africa—
enough to become one of the so-called God-fearers—
who then, on his own personal initiative,
made the long trip to Jerusalem to worship.

The Ethiopian was a eunuch—
a court official, we read, of the Candace (not a name, but a title),
mother of the king of Ethiopia.
This eunuch was in charge of her entire treasury.
He was a big deal in an ancient kingdom of great power.

Ethiopia then, by the way, was not Ethiopia now.
Ethiopia then, also known as the kingdom of Cush or Nubia,
was the power south of Egypt,
extending from the first cataract to the sixth cataract of the Nile
(Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1998] 295).
where the Blue Nile and the White Nile converge in present day Sudan.
Ethiopia was also considered, since the time of Homer,
by both the Greeks and the Romans, the ends of the earth
(F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts in The New International Commentary
on the New Testament
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1988] 179).

But he wasn’t in Jerusalem in his official capacity—
wasn’t there on business.
He left Africa by choice.
That needs to be said
because of how many stories that began in Africa ended in other countries
not by choice—or by someone else’s choice.

So it’s actually well into the story that the Ethiopian
was in the Judean wilderness on his way home.

He had come to Jerusalem to worship.
That’s the pluperfect tense, by the way.
How often do you get to say that?
Or the past perfect, which isn’t as fun to say!
Y’all know the pluperfect?
It defines a time in the past earlier than another time in the past.
So he had gone to worship in Jerusalem before he was on the road home.
But there is another way of hearing such phrasing.
He had gone to Jerusalem to worship.
You hear it? He had gone to Jerusalem to worship,
but was unable to—was not allowed to—
was barred from entering into the Temple.
So, he was returning home, disappointed, we can safely assume—
rejected, excluded, seated in his chariot,
for as a eunuch, he would have been “excluded by law
from full participation in the covenant community”
(Deuteronomy 23:1; Leviticus 21:17-21)
(Robert W. Wall, The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, Commentary,
and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible
[Nashville: Abingdon, 2002] 142).

So he was returning home
on that road south of Jerusalem,
disappointed,
and reading the prophet Isaiah.

I don’t think that should in any way be heard as a measure of his faith—
that even after this heartbreaking experience with the people of God,
he was nonetheless reading Scripture for consolation—comfort—assurance.
And I certainly don’t think he was sitting in his chariot
looking at a Hebrew scroll wondering what it said—
needing someone to read the text to him—to translate the Hebrew—
to interpret the meaning.
I think he was actually rereading a scroll he had read many times before—
rereading a scroll with which he was oh so familiar,
trying to figure out how he had read it so wrong.

Because Isaiah, the larger story of Isaiah,
is one of inclusion.
Isaiah writes of God gathering the remnant
of God’s scattered people from a host of different nations
including Ethiopia (Isaiah 11:11).
Isaiah writes of a specific word of invitation God speaks
to the nation of Ethiopia (Isaiah 18),
and most importantly and most specifically,
Isaiah writes and this man had read,
over and over again:
“For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him,
to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:4-7).

That’s what God says.

The language of superiority is not the language of God.
The language of exclusion and rejection is not the language of God.
The language of fear and violence is not the language of God.
There are not many sides to this.
Those who seek to follow God denounce such language
be it spoken by protestors, presidents or preachers.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
And it was God’s language of love and grace
that had birthed this Ethiopian eunuch’s deep and profound hope
to be included—to be a part.
Can you imagine what it’s like to want to be included—
to expect to be included,
and then to be excluded?
If you can’t, by the way, that’s privilege.

As we join this story midway through it,
the Spirit, somehow, whisked Philip from Samaria into the wilderness
south of Jerusalem.
The Spirit heard the sighs, you see, too deep for words—
felt the broken heart of someone rejected by the faith community—
acknowledged the profound importance of a so-called outsider,
and sent someone,
but didn’t whisk him right onto the chariot.

So we also have to visually picture Philip,
responding to the Spirit’s direction and running—
running to catch up to the chariot—
running alongside the chariot,
before being invited aboard—
before being included.
The Spirit prompts—initiates,
but it takes Philip’s effort too.

Again, the Ethiopian didn’t need Philip to read Isaiah to him.
He didn’t need Philip to interpret what he had read.
This should in no way be understood
as any kind of colonial/condescending/patriarchal
“I-have-and-will-give-you-the-answer-you-need.”

No. When Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”,
and he responded, “How can I unless someone guides me?”,
we need to hear undertones of anger and disappointment.
“Well I thought I did,
but obviously I need someone to explain to me
how this doesn’t mean what it says.
Because obviously I got a lot of this wrong.
I mean this is what it says, but apparently not what it means.”

What happens when the invitation of God—
the assurance of Scripture—the promise of faith—
is impeded by those who claim to follow God, respect Scripture
and number themselves among the faithful?
I have said before, I’ll say again:
while so many in the Church focus on reaching the so-called “lost,”
who do not know God,
we are so much more responsible
for those who have known and rejected God because of us.

Of course, it is complicated, isn’t it?
It cannot be as easy as some obviously clear
absolute division into right and wrong.
Because the question we have to wrestle with is this:
what happens when to obey Scripture is to disobey Scripture?
What happens when to honor Scripture is to dishonor Scripture?
Because if you listen to Isaiah,
you’re not listening to Deuteronomy and Leviticus
or vice versa,
and so then you are raising the question,
if the way we treat so-called outsiders is not because the Bible says so
(because the Bible says both),
then what is it?
What drives priorities and choices and actions?
Is it what you were raised with?
What you’re comfortable with?
What preserves your privilege?
Is it what’s easier?
Because the rules are definitely easier
than the grace that surprises
not just those used to being excluded,
who find themselves included,
but also surprises those used to justifying exclusion—
that wild unpredictable grace that includes—what, them?

And what happens when someone reading
about God’s promises and assurances,
overwhelmed by grace and love,
investing in hope and possibility,
runs into the people of God’s fear and defensiveness?

This is our history—part of it—
a significant part of it,
and always a part of now too.
It was once the church and slaves and slavery.
It was once—still is in many contexts, the church and women and patriarchy.
It is the church and non-gender conforming individuals,
and the church and non-traditional expressions of sexuality and relationship—
it is the sin of racism—
not just the lies, but the heresy of white supremacy—
and always, for those with ears to hear,
fear and defensiveness and anger and rejection.

And given that our Scripture’s stories
are all placed within a core defining story—
the story of a desperate struggle against emperor and empire—
resistance to oppression of mind, body, spirit, priorities—and minorities,

it is wrong.

And we must be more willing to say it.
Not that Scripture is wrong,
but that this text is—or that one—
because they stand against the trajectory of revelation—
stand counter to the ongoing revelation of grace—
stand in opposition to justice, righteousness and humility.

Now the Ethiopian was contemplating a particular passage
within the larger scroll of Isaiah,
one of the so-called suffering servant passages.
Let me read you a few sections:
“He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised,
and we held him of no account.”
That’s familiar to y’all, right?
“Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted….
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,”
and this is the part quoted in our text:
“like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.”

“About whom,” asks the eunuch, “about whom, may I ask you,
does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”
Because he’s identifying with this text—
placing his own suffering into his reading—
his own sense of being despised and rejected by others—
held of no account—his own sense of bearing
what others perceive as infirmity and affliction—
his own sense of oppression—of justice perverted.
It’s an insight into Scripture many of us miss.
That’s privilege.

Philip opened his mouth and starting with this scripture,
he proclaimed the good news of Jesus—
which I would suggest is less that Jesus suffered for us,
as that God redeemed Jesus’ suffering.
Didn’t require suffering.
Didn’t justify suffering.
Redeemed it.
And anyway, as interesting as it is to wonder what all Philip said,
it’s as interesting—more interesting? to wonder what the Ethiopian heard.
And to hope that within the story of one excluded,
sent away from a place of worship,
left studying our sacred texts on some lonely road,
trying to figure out how he had so misread
words of radically inclusive grace and love—
to hope that within the story of theologically justified exclusion,
there would be rekindled the hope of presence and grace and love—
that Philip’s sense of the gospel—the good news,
the grace of Isaiah in Jesus, the grace of God in Jesus—
his responsiveness to the leadership of the Spirit,
would all lead him to a radical inclusiveness.
“This is the story of Jesus,” he says, “and it is your story too.
You are a part of this bigger story that began before us.
For at the time of his ascension, Jesus, left the disciples with these words:
‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).
and I myself, Philip, was a witness in Samaria before being sent to you,
and through you—through your powerful faith and hope,
the gospel will go to that distant land
between the first and sixth cataract of the mighty Nile—
will go to (according to Homer and the Romans and the Greeks)
the very ends of the earth, and will go with joy.”

Well they came to some water.
And the Ethiopian asked, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?”
What’s to prevent me from claiming this story?—
this hope?—this truth?
What’s to prevent me from choosing to live into this story?
What’s to prevent me from believing?
What’s to prevent me from identifying myself along with you
as one following in this way of God?
What’s to prevent me?”
So far, it’s only been the people of God, right?
But Philip, again, responsive to the direction of the Spirit,
enthusiastic in his celebration of the gospel’s radical grace,
says, “Nothing. Nothing’s to prevent you. Absolutely nothing.”

They came up from the waters,
and Philip was whisked away by the Spirit of God.
The eunuch saw him no more,
but went on his way rejoicing—
went on his way with joy.

It’s beautiful.
Later in that Isaiah passage the Ethiopian was considering,
we read (he hadn’t gotten to it yet,
but it was waiting for him—he did get to it):
“Out of his anguish he shall see light” (Isaiah 53:11).

And now, finally, think about this!
It’s all part of a bigger story!
Remember how Scripture stories are placed within a core defining story?
The Ethiopian had experienced rejection and exclusion.
He was leaving oppression,
and was in the wilderness with a guide,
and, in the wilderness, God provided water!
I love Scripture!
The children left Pharaoh in Egypt
and were led through the wilderness,
were provided water
on their way within the presence of God to the promised land.
Now this man is leaving Pharaoh in the promised land
and going back to Africa—
because you don’t get to leave Pharaoh and become Pharaoh!
And even in God’s city—even as God’s people, you can be Pharaoh.
And the promised land is always less about the place
than the promise and the presence—and the spirit.

Ours is not the story of some zero-sum game
in which someone winning and others losing are the only options—
a story in which we defeat Pharaoh
only to then take his place.
Ours is a bigger, richer, deeper more profound
transformative and ongoing story of possibility
in which Pharaoh is ever being overcome—in others and in us—
in which it’s up to us
to persistently name the promise and trust the presence—

to see in our story the bigger story
of God always with those being led away from oppression—
always being led away from discrimination—
always being led away from the tactics of violence—
always being led away from rejection and exclusion and heartache—
always being led away from fear—

to see in our stories the bigger story and to know
we must always contextually place ourselves in this story—
to know that who we are in the story is not fixed,
and that how we treat others
is less a matter of our privilege than of our judgment .

Eugene Peterson, a writer I appreciate and admire,
author of the popular version of the Bible, The Message,
in an interview last month was asked, as a retired Presbyterian pastor,
about whether he would now celebrate a same-sex wedding, if asked.
and he said, yes, he would.
And then he said no, he wouldn’t.
A few days later.
Maybe, as he said, he needed more time
to think through the question and his answer.
Maybe LifeWay’s threat not to sell his books had an effect.
I don’t know.

My friend and senior co-pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in DC,
Maria Swearingen, commented,
“Welcoming and affirming queer people shouldn’t feel like pulling teeth
or dragging your feet. It should feel like joyful conversion.
Like, ‘I was blind and now I see.’ Like drinking from living waters.
It should evoke language like, ‘My theology was vapid and frail,
my God so small and close-minded that it made me demean,
belittle, neglect, and outright hate people for no … good reason.
And now I have discovered how wrong that was.
And the only thing I can imagine doing
is saying yes to their precious, wondrous lives.’ ”

In the aftermath of the last few days,
how do we possibly not identify specifically Black lives and Jewish lives—
specifically the lives of those rejected,
and say yes to their precious, wondrous lives?
And identify specifically the small broken lives of those who hate
and utterly reject that hate,
but also remind them too,
of what’s precious and wondrous about them too.

And so, in the midst of trying to figure out where all my privilege lies,
and who I exclude and who is excluded in my culture,
so much of which I take for granted,
in the midst of trying to hear the pain of those rejected,
the song of God’s love and grace,
and so trying in my life and ministry
to hear what truly celebrates Scripture and God
and what demeans and diminishes God—
sometimes even in the name of celebration—
trying to ascertain not just who we have excluded in the past
for which we must repent,
but also who we are excluding—
what “issues” we are prioritizing over “people”
made in the image of God—
in the midst of all this,
I am full of joy and hope at the prospect of my theology and my God
ever expanding—
ever embracing more—
ever celebrating more—
in the goodness not of having arrived—having vanquished,
but in the goodness of presence and promise on the way—
in the goodness of a story not reduced to winners and losers,
but ever expanding into ongoing transformation.

Yes.

trouble the waters: “a religion separated from the work of social justice is despicable to God” or, “a religion working for social justice reflects the heart of God”

trouble the waters: “a religion separated from the work of social justice is despicable to God” or, “a religion working for social justice reflects the heart of God”

Scripture
Amos 5:21-24
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Sermon
Today we start our seven week worship series on racial justice,
and preparing for it has been absolutely and utterly overwhelming!
Hard to even know where to start.
There are so many stories—so many statistics—so much history.
But actually, we do know where to start.
We start with Scripture.
That’s what we do.

And our text this morning comes from the book of Amos—
the prophetic word of a prophet from the southern kingdom,
born not far from Jerusalem,
who nonetheless prophesied predominantly to the northern kingdom.
So the voice of an outsider.
His ministry dates to the the days of Jeroboam II, king of Israel
and Uzziah, king of Judah,

which means Amos prophesied in what would have been prosperous days
in the life of both Israel and Judah.
Early military expansion by both kings
resulted in years of political stability
and economic prosperity (at least for the ruling class)
(James D. Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Hosea-Jonah
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2011] 259).

Assyria’s dominance in the region was imminent,
and so too the destruction and defeat of both kingdoms,
but nothing was suspected at the time.
Amos predicted the downfall of Israel,
not based on a recognizable outside threat,
but on his observations and interpretations
of the kingdom’s priorities and practices.
He spoke into a status quo
that would have not been questioned by those in charge—
into a status quo that was good to and for those in charge,
and it is against such a reality that we need to hear these words again:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

Our text unfolds in “three parallel sets of negative statements”.
The first “uses three expressive verbs (hate, despise, take no delight)
followed by two objects (festivals, solemn assemblies).
The second … focuses upon three types of sacrifice
(burnt offerings, grain offerings, offerings of well-being) that YHWH rejects.
In the third set of parallel lines … YHWH commands
that songs cease and refuses to hear the instrumental music”
(Nogalski, 321).

It’s interesting to consider.
God hates/despises precise those festivals and rituals
specifically spelled out in the Torah—
not only God ordained but God specified—
here’s exactly how you do it!
And when God rejects their songs—
think about it—
the entire book of Psalms is a collection of their songs.

God rejects what God ordained—
what God inspired.
God rejects worship.
God rejects Scripture.

And the rejections build in power and disgust.
But our text does not culminate in negatives,
but in a positive—
not in rejection but in affirmation:
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

So in somewhat like manner,
throughout this worship series, each sermon will have two titles:
one from a negative perspective—an observation on what is—
and on too many of our choices and actions,
and one from a positive perspective
that names our hope and the heart and truth of God—
the positive given integrity in not rejecting the negative.

Now we need to be clear.
It’s not that God hates worship.
It’s that God hates the hypocrisy of worshippers
who see no connection between who God is
and how they live as followers of God—
who do not see or acknowledge the relevance
of their politics and their business lives.
It’s not even so much that God despises
worship that has not resulted in justice and righteousness,
but those who worship
with no sense of the important of justice and righteousness.
It’s not that worship’s not valued—not important,
it’s that it’s undermined—distorted—perverted.

Our text forces us to revalue our Scripture,
and where once we sang
with the children of Israel of old in petition:
“By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?”
(Psalm 137:1-4),

Amos demands that we sing with the children of Israel
in confession:
“In the walls of Jerusalem,
there we sat down and there we wept,
remembering Zion.
In the Temple there,
we hung up our harps.
For there our people
asked us for songs,
and our believers asked for faith, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How can we sing the Lord’s song
in our unjust land?”

How can we sing of our faith—our faithfulness—
our God,
when our social and economic structures
make of that faith and that God a mockery?

Which brings us to the context in which our faith is practiced
and our worship is celebrated,
and here’s where I was completely and utterly overwhelmed.
Do we go back and look at our history of genocide—of slavery—
on how much of the wealth and prosperity of our country and people,
now as then,
was generated by taking from others—
by the labor of slaves and the bodies of slaves?—
how city planning, and the development of mass transportation
intentionally excluded black neighborhoods?—
or how red-lining condemned neighborhoods with black families?
Do I look to the years of the civil rights movement?
There is so much to catalogue in our story that is despicable in its racism.

But I want to refer specifically to more recent tragedies and commentary,
believing these details to be indicative of deepest truth.
Y’all know the name Michael Brown?
Of course you do.
August 9, 2014 he was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, MO.
After the killing of Michael Brown,
the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division’s investigation
of the Ferguson Police Department and Municipal Court revealed
that their “mission was revenue generation—
extracting money from the black residents of the town,
using methods that were often legally questionable,
sometimes outright unlawful, and certainly morally reprehensible….
Blacks make up 67 percent of the populate of Ferguson
yet constituted 85 percent of vehicle stops,
90 percent of citations, 93 percent of arrests,
88 percent of cases with the use of force,
92 percent of cases in which arrest warrants were issued,
and 96 percent of the people held at the Ferguson jail for more than two days…. Dubious municipal ordinances were used as excuses
to generate citations, said the report—
again, almost entirely against black residents
for “Manner of Walking” (95 percent), “Failure to Comply” (94 percent),
and “Peace Disturbance” (92 percent).
One hundred percent of police-dog bite victims were black”
(Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin [Grand Rapids, Brazos Press, 2016] 17).

Freddy Gray?
After the death of Freddy Gray, April 19, 2015,
in our own city and the subsequent riots,
Nicholas Kristof wrote an op-ed “When Baltimore Burned,”
in the New York Times, April 29, 2015 highlighting
“a failure on our part in the American news media.
We focus television cameras on the drama of a burning CVS store
but ignore the systemic catastrophe of broken schools,
joblessness, fatherless kids, heroin, oppressive policing —
and, maybe the worst kind of poverty of all, hopelessness.

If wealthy white parents found their children damaged by lead poisoning,
consigned to dismal schools, denied any opportunity to get ahead,
more likely to end up in prison than college,
harassed and occasionally killed by the police —
why, then we’d hear roars of grievance. And they’d be right to roar:
Parents of any color should protest, peacefully but loudly, about such injustices.
We’ve had months of police incidents touching on a delicate subtext of race,
but it’s not clear that we’re learning lessons.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. in a speech given in the last year of his life said,
“a riot is the language of the unheard.
And what is it America has failed to hear?…
It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.
And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society
are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo
than about justice and humanity.”

This week, in an article in Baptist News Global, Bill Leonard,
former dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest,
church history professor and one of the keenest observers
and interpreters of history unfolding that I know,
pointed out James “Cone’s poignant critique
of individuals like Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr
and other “white theologians” who “have written thousands of books
about Jesus’ cross without remarking on the analogy
between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people.”
He is particularly critical of Niebuhr, his erstwhile theological mentor,
who could address the cross “with profound theological imagination,”
and yet “say nothing of how the violence of white supremacy
invalidated the faith of white churches.”

By the way, some two thousand more black men and women
were lynched (that we know about),
than there were people killed
when the World Trade Center towers came down on 9-11.

Also this past week in Baptist News Global, our friend Russ Dean juxtaposed:
“Opioid abuse is a tragedy; crack cocaine use is a crime.
Opioid users are members of society who need to be valued and restored;
crack cocaine addicts are criminals who need to be locked away.
Opioid addiction needs to be treated with compassion and medical intervention;
crack cocaine addiction deserves increased “law and order.”
With the opioid epidemic we seek the peace of the addicted;
with the crack epidemic, an all-out war on drug users.
Opioid use is treated with careful diagnosis;
crack abuse with mandatory sentencing.
Opioid recovery is to be celebrated; recovery from crack cocaine …
well, who cares if anyone recovers from crack?”
Could it be, he wonders, as simple and tragic
as that opioids plague middle class and rich white families,
while most crack cocaine abusers are poor and black?

In 2005, in Missouri, James V. Taylor was arrested after a traffic stop
for possession of an amount of crack cocaine
that investigators deemed unweighable
and was sentenced to 15 years in jail.

In 2010, in Las Vegas, Paris Hilton was arrested after a traffic stop
for possession of .8 grams of cocaine
and was given a fine and sentenced to community service hours
(https://newsone.com/1621445/top-5-most-ridiculous-court-sentences-of-all-time/).

And this is not an anomaly.
This is what passes for justice in our country.

In 2003, in Georgia, Gennarlow Wilson, a 17 year old high school football player
engaged in consensual sexual acts with a 15 year old
and was sentenced in 2005, to 10 years in prison
(https://newsone.com/1621445/top-5-most-ridiculous-court-sentences-of-all-time/).

In 2015, in California, Brook Turner, a college freshman
raped a young woman
and was sentenced to six months,
and his parents thought that was too much.
He will never be his happy-go-lucky self his father lamented.

Author Jennifer Weiner, writing in The New York Times, this past Friday
points out in an article entitled “The Men Who Never Have to Grow Up
how men have avoided responsibility by not claiming their maturity.
In 1969, that was 37 year old Teddy Kennedy,
whose “handlers”/family figured “if America saw
this married man in his late 30’s as a boy—
handsome and high spirited, mischievous, not a criminal—
he’d be able to squirm out of his misdeeds with minimal punishment.
And today, it may well be 39 year old Donald Trump, Jr.—
“that honest kid,” don’t you know.

Women and nonwhite men don’t have it quite as easy.

If boys will be boys, then girls must be grown-ups,
whose job it is to protect men from their worst impulses.
Witness every administrative body, from middle school to Congress,
that has decided that it’s easier and more culturally acceptable
to police police girls’ and womens’ clothing than it is boys’ behavior.

Should one of these fine young fellows slip —
inflamed, perhaps, by one bare shoulder too many —
there’s probably a woman to blame,
and it’s his punishment, not his crime, that becomes the tragedy.

People of color, of course, never receive the leeway
that “good kids” like the 39-year-old Trump son seem to get.
When police officers shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice,
for the sin of playing in the park with a toy gun,
their excuse was that they thought he was an adult suspect.

Oh, and there’s this:
in 1984 people sentence to life in prison numbered 34,000
by 2013, it was nearly 160,000.
“Upward trends in life sentences originated in the ‘tough on crime’
political environment of the 1980s, which saw growing skepticism
about possibilities for rehabilitating serious criminals”
(http://www.scholarsstrategynetwork.org/brief/harmful-rise-life-imprisonment-united-states)—
which is a theological heresy, by the way—
a total rejection of the grace of Scripture and God.

At a recent Baltimore County Council hearing
on a request from the federal government that local law enforcement
be trained and designated to perform immigration officer functions,
the rhetoric was all about the violent criminals in our community
(of whom ICE is notified when they’re arrested anyway),
as if there haven’t been family members deported after traffic stops.
I said, “You speak to this program at some imagined best, free of abuse,
as if people won’t be forced to live with it at its worst.”

And the fact of the matter is, … well, here are some crimes
for which people are serving life sentences in our country:

— acting as a go-between in the sale of $10 worth of marijuana to an undercover cop;
— having a stash of over the counter decongestant pills
that could be used to make methamphetamine;
— attempting to cash a stolen check;
— possessing stolen wrenches;
— shoplifting three belts from a department store;
— making drunken threat to a police officer
while handcuffed int he back of a patrol car;
— taking an abusive stepfather’s gun from their shared home
(http://billmoyers.com/2013/11/14/23-petty-crimes-that-have-landed-people-in-prison-for-life/).

As you will no doubt have surmised,
the racial disparity among those serving life is striking.
“[T]he black population of lifers reaches a remarkable 77% in Maryland”
(http://www.scholarsstrategynetwork.org/brief/harmful-rise-life-imprisonment-united-states).

And finally, I heard something this week I haven’t heard before.
And maybe it has been said, and I just haven’t heard it,
but in the aftermath of the police killing
of Justine Damond Saturday a week ago,
the police chief in Minneapolis has already resigned
and publicly stated, “Justine did not have to die.
This should never have happened.”
No blue wall in Minneapolis this past week.
But of course, Justine was a beautiful, blond, white meditation instructor,
and the officer who shot her, Mohammed Noor, of Somalian descent.

The disgust must build, my friends—the rejections.
Because these are not isolated incidents,
but evidence of who we are,
and it’s only after confession that there can be repentance,
and only after repentance that there is a new positive to embrace.

There are stamps in our bulletin.
They’re a part of our history—part of our story, yes.
They’re also about how you get a message across.

There’s also a fist in our bulletin—
a raised fist.
It’s an offensive image to some—
as is Black Lives Matter.

Here’s the thing:
to consider the racial history of our country
is to find not a single advance that was not hard fought:
abolishing slavery,
segregating schools,
the civil rights bill.
Nothing was done out of any moral imperative of the majority.
Think about that.
It undermines so much of how we like to think of ourselves.
But we have too much engaged in the fatal flaw
of thinking we are who we’d like to think we are
instead of what we do.
Unfortunately it seems, historically speaking,
social justice is rarely offered.
It has to be demanded.
For while social justice is ultimately good for all,
it’s not as immediately profitable for some.
It does not justify the power to which some cling.

These are the realities against which
the words of Amos resound in our worship.
So this is some of what I think needs to be heard in our worship—
needs to hear from the church—
from us as followers of God in the way of Jesus:
that Black Lives Matter is not an arrogantly confrontative, exclusive claim
but the desperate, sad and lonely recognition that too much
in our culture, they don’t.
Our world needs to hear that we absolutely and completely
utterly reject any narrative of white supremacy as heresy—
racism as sin—
that we acknowledge how both lead to injustice
and to God’s utter disdain and contempt.

For if we do not confront and challenge such narratives,
we will be destroyed.
Oh, not by any external threat,
but in moral decay proudly clinging to rotting ideals.

Our love of country only has integrity
if we recognize and despise those parts of it that are evil.

Psychology teaches us you can’t really love yourself
until you embrace your shadow side.

Our youth and children Passport camp theme
was do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God—
a theme that rolls through this worship series.
And here’s a question for you:
if justice rolls down like waters,
what gets swept away?
If kindness and humility were prioritized—
if we lived in hope, not fear,
what would life in this country then be like?
More like God’s dream?

I am hopeful;
I am excited.
We can still be the church.
But only if we realize
that, according to God,
that doesn’t have to do with worship.
It doesn’t have to do with dogma.
It has to do with justice
and kindness
and humility.

I have a dream.

parables as subversive act: “wait a minute! say what?,” november 13, 2016

Introit
Eliza Gilykson, “The Great Correction

Responsive Call to Worship
We gather for worship
having voted this past week
for our country’s next president.
Some of us voted for one candidate,
others of us for another,
others of us for still another.
It’s real, and it’s messy.
Some of us are more scared, some less,
some more angry, some less.
It’s real, and it’s messy.
We acknowledge that everyone we voted for is flawed.
It’s really messy.
We’re all aware of the difference
between campaigning and governing.
We all hope it will be better than we fear.
But in the midst of it all,
we also know our clear call
to work for justice,
to love righteousness,
to be humble with our God,
to look for God and to find God
in the least of these,
and to be faithful stewards
of God’s creation and God’s way.

Meditations
Obedience is frequently the opposite.
It is a jump into the unknown.
A move based on trust, not in a certain future,
but in a dependable God.”
—Ken Wytsma, The Grand Paradox:
The Messiness of Life, the Mystery of God,
and the Necessity of Faith

When justice and love are rightly understood,
love is not in conflict with justice
but love incorporates justice.
—Nicholas Wolterstorff in Ken Wytsma

We don’t stray away from good doctrine or truth
by focusing on justice and compassion for those in the margins—
rather, we find Jesus and truth in the margins.
—Ken Wytsma

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Psalm 85:6-13
Will you not revive us again,
so that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your steadfast love, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people,
to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
and will make a path for his steps.

Luke 18:1-8
Then Jesus told them a parable
about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.
He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge
who neither feared God nor had respect for people.
In that city there was a widow
who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice
against my opponent.” For a while he refused;
but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God
and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me,
I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out
by continually coming.” ’ And the Lord said,
‘Listen to what the unjust judge says.
And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones
who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?
I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.
And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’

Pastoral Word
There is a lot of raw feeling in this room.
And it’s not the same raw for all of us.
Some are scared, some angry, some defensive.
Many feel misunderstood.
Some feel concerns are being underestimated;
some that they’re being overestimated.
And we risk being isolated from each other
as we wait to see how things will continue to unfold.

I have prayed and struggled this week with what to say—
as someone with my own fears and frustrations,
and yet as pastor to the congregation,
who values how each one of you is feeling.

The election is over.
I do not condone protesting that becomes violent or even threatening.
I can also not condone just telling people to get over it
to just come together—as if we have had that modeled for us.
I affirm a peaceful transition of authority.

It is abundantly clear that Mr. Trump spoke
to a large number of people with economic concerns—
with an enormous amount of frustration with the status quo
and with our systems and their insiders—
the political system, the economic system, the media system—
with no hope of a better tomorrow.
I get that.
I share that.

I hope and pray he will bring constructive change to those systems,
even as he now works within one of them.
God knows they need it.
I will pray for him,
and I say to you it is up to all of us
to respect the office of the president
in the days, months and years to come.

It is also obviously true that Mr. Trump reached his position
by opening the door to vile language and behavior
that cannot and must not be condoned by anyone of decency or faith.
His rhetoric, if not his intent, has not just put people at risk,
people have been hurt.
Newspapers across the board and across the world
are reporting an uptick in hate crimes,
and I say to you it is up to all of us
to respect God’s call to care for the least of these.

This must be a safe place for all.
That is our understanding of sanctuary—
which means we can gather with our different raw feelings
and commit to work together to be together to work and worship together—
which means we offer all the love and support we can
to each other—
naming for each other what it is we hope for,
not just what we’re against,
and also naming for each other what we will not tolerate—
what we will resist.
And remember, we started saying “We are the resistance”
long before Mr. Trump ever announced he was running for president!

We offer all the love and support we can
to each other,
and to those who are scared—legitimately scared—
be they business owners in the path of protestors,
people trying to get home from work and scared to go through the city,
be they of another religion—another color,
another sexual orientation—another gender,
another nationality—another socio-economic status.

You will be respected here, we affirm.
You will be loved here, we proclaim.
You will, if need be, be protected here.

This is hard. What I’m asking of you is hard.
But we can absolutely believe there are very different ways
of working toward what is safer than what we now know—
and better and more right than what we now know—
and more hopeful for more people than what we now know,
but we must also unite in loving our sisters and brothers along the way.

It’s always easier just to be with people who all agree
but I believe this challenge to us as community—
this hard part of what community means—
is also of God.
So may it be so—
even here and now in and through us.

Hear now this prayer by Carrie Newcomer—
not just as a prayer to God,
but also as a prayer we can each one of us answer
for another one of us:

 

Witness of the Living Word
Our text begins with a word from Luke about the parable:
Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always
and not to lose heart.
So we’re told before we hear it—read it,
what the parable means.

Then we’re introduced to, the judge, an authority figure,
who did not fear God and had no respect for people.
And right from the outset, we’re predisposed not to like this judge.
This is Luke, after all.
And in that same city there was a widow,
and from the outset, we’re predisposed to like her.
Yes, because it’s Luke.
And she kept coming to the judge saying
(over and over and over and over again the verb tense implies),
“Grant me justice”—
which is entirely in keeping with our idealized view of widows in Luke

… except it’s not “justice” she wants.

If you have your own Bible here, cross out that word.
Cross out the word “justice,”
and write in the word “vengeance.”
The widow cries, “Grant me ‘vengeance’ against my opponent.”
Amy Jill Levine points this out in her book short stories by jesus
(Amy-Jill Levine, short stories by jesus
[New York: HarperCollins, 2014] 224)
and a quick look at the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament
(Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume II
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1964] 442) confirms this.

And that changes things.
Even positively predisposed to like the widow,
that changes things.
She’s not asking for legal help in the pursuit justice,
she’s asking for a legal justification for vengeance.

And so we realize—it dawns on us,
we really have no idea where the justice is in all this.
Maybe she was unjustly treated.
Maybe she didn’t like the way she was treated.
Maybe she was poor, powerless, and oppressed.
Maybe she had enough resources
to be able to afford to spend time
day after day after day badgering this judge—
which doesn’t necessarily sound like someone in dire straits.
Someone in dire straits doesn’t typically have time
for much more than simply getting enough food for the day.

For a while the judge refused her,
and since we don’t have any idea of the justice here,
and since vengeance is the Lord’s (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19),
that may well have been the right thing to do.

But then he says to himself,
“Well, I don’t fear God,
and I don’t respect people,
but I am getting awfully tired of this widow
pestering me.
So I will grant her her vengeance.”

Nothing about having assessed the evidence—
the validity of her claim.
He’s just sick of her presence—
tired of being bugged.
“So she doesn’t wear me out.”
You might want to cross that out phrase too, actually—
“wear me out.”
The Greek phrase is an idiom from the boxing world, actually.
Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 9:27, writing of athletic discipline
and commitment—of “punishing” his body reads our translation.
“Literally it means ‘so that in the end she may not come
and strike me under the eye’ ” (R. Alan Culpepper,
“The Gospel of Luke” in The New Interpreter’s Bible
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 338)—
“so she won’t give me a black eye.”

Now the widow’s probably not literally
going to give the judge a black eye,
so most scholars take this figuratively—
so she won’t embarrass him.
But we already know—we’ve been told,
this judge doesn’t respect people.
Why would he care about a little embarrassment?

And that’s the story.
A judge we’re predisposed not to like
initially does the right thing,
but then ends up doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason.
And a widow we’re predisposed to like
asks for the wrong thing,
goes about it in the wrong way,
and ends up getting it anyway.

We start off thinking we know who’s who,
and then it’s like they’re wearing those mission impossible masks,
and though you think you know who you’re dealing with,
they tear their masks off and turns out they’re someone else!
And we don’t end up admiring anyone.
We end up without anyone as an example.

And it is the parable thing of everything getting turned upside down,
but it doesn’t fall into what we might recognize
or name God’s way—God’s kingdom of heaven.
We don’t have created or recreated or established or affirmed
a better order—
an upside down as a corrective—
an intervention that makes more sense
from the perspective of our faith affirmations.
No, what we have is a mess.

And maybe—maybe, we hear Jesus asking, with a smile,
“Well now honestly,
how often do things fall into a neat order for you?
Make sense?
Or is it really all more of a mess?
And how often do the real people you know
fall in line as those who are all good or all bad?
Or are we really all more of a mess?”

It’s the mess, isn’t it?
And there’s no “it’s God’s will.”
There’s no “God’s in charge.”
There is no rhyme or reason—
no explanation.
Just the question will God find faith within the mess?

Not when things are good.
Not when things are easy.
But when life is challenging and stressful
and hard and scary.
Will God find faith?

And so, given the story, Luke’s opening verse makes sense:
pray always and don’t lose heart.
Keep the faith.
But the closing verses are a bit more challenging:
as mixed up, confused and confusing set of sentences as I’ve heard.
And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says.
And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones
who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?

That’s another sentence to scratch out, by the way:
“Will God delay long in helping them.”
The Greek would more literally be translated
“Will God be patient with them?”

So, will not God grant justice to those who cry out day and night?
Will God be patient with them?
Though if they’re the ones crying day and night,
wouldn’t the question be will they have patience with God?
I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.
Quickly?
What about the crying day and night?
What about the patience?

And then, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

This makes no sense to me …

which is great; I love that!
We have some problems to think through:

a/ We have a theological problem
with the lousy theological idea
that anyone would have to badger God
into answering prayer;

and b/ the assumption made is not valid.
Will not God grant justice to the chosen who cry out day and night?
God will quickly grant justice.
Well, we know that’s not true.
God will quickly grant justice to them?
This is the tradition of the people in the wilderness
wandering for forty years.
This is the tradition of the people of the exile;

and finally c/ it’s still that word “vengeance” not “justice.”
“Will not God grant ‘vengeance’; God will quickly grant ‘vengeance’. ”
It’s still a vindictive story—
not a transformative one.
So it’s not what I would consider godly.

It makes no sense—

unless—
unless,
what if Luke’s “Listen to what the unjust judge says
is not a reference to an old quote
but an introduction to a new quote?
What if it’s not remember what the unjust judge said (past tense) back in the story:
“Though I have no fear of God
and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me,
I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out
by continually coming.”

But what if we have remember what the unjust judge says
(and the verb is actually in the present tense),
and then a new quote such that what the judge says is:
“And will not God grant vengeance to his chosen ones
who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?
I tell you, he will quickly grant vengeance to them.”

What if it is (because it sure sounds like it could be)
the judge justifying himself and what he did.
“Hey, doesn’t even God give vengeance to those who pester God?
And God does it quickly, right?” So did I.

I went to my Greek New Testament by the way,
to verify what I suspected,
and it’s true,
there are no quotation marks in the Greek.
So deciding what the judge said
is another one of those aspects of translation that is interpretation.

So no.
The way I’m reading … interpreting …
God does not grant vengeance.
No matter how much you pester God.
No matter how persistently you pray.

And life remains a mess.
And people are a mixture—a combination
of better and worse.
And people do good things and less good things and bad things—evil things.
And just when you think you know what to expect
the mission impossible mask comes off!

Michelle Bachman and Franklin Graham
are the only two whose pious sounding self-serving words of faith
I’ve had the misfortune of hearing or seeing this past week
that undid me.
And I’m sorry if any of you appreciate their theology,
but you need to know, from all I know, it’s a particularly cheap,
shallow, and perverse theology they espouse
that has God manipulating the presidential election.

Any of you remember the story of Israel first demanding a king?
The prophet Samuel was displeased and prayed to God
who said to Samuel, “Listen to the people.
They have not rejected you; they have rejected me”
(1 Samuel 8:7).
God does not pull the levers of politics.
Life does not proceed according to plan—
not even God’s plan.
It’s a mess.

And I tell you true, in all my years of pastoral ministry
(which are adding up to almost three decades now …
yikes!),
I have never ever found it helpful
to tell anyone going through their own hell
that there’s a reason for it—
a plan within which their hell is unfolding as planned.

I got a text early Friday morning from a pastor friend,
one of whose teenage youth hung herself.
You can probably imagine with me,
the last thing her loved ones need to hear is
that there’s a reason for such a senseless tragedy.

Now to get your continuing education certificate in pastoral care,
you also need to know never to quote Romans 8:28
to someone going through their own personal hell.
All things work together for good?
You run the risk of someone in pain hearing you say
that what happened to them happened so that good could come of it
instead of the much bigger and truer affirmation
that good will come again in spite of what happened.

Because so often what happens is just a mess.
And people are a mess.

So will the Son of Man find faith—
in the midst of the mess?

This is not a parable about persistence in prayer
to undo the mess,
but about persistence in faith
through the mess.

Do you keep the faith
when it doesn’t make sense—
when nothing makes sense?

This parable is about overturning the idolatry of sense and circumstance—
the fallible foible of a fable
that God is in charge
in a way that suggests circumstances are divinely manipulated—
that there’s a reason for what happens—
that life isn’t a mess—
that we aren’t messes.

It is; we are.
Our hope is not in a plan but in a presence—
not in what God will do in spite of us,
but what God does in and through us
who keep the faith.

That is the good news.
That is the hard news
for us today
in the mess.
Amen.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
1 Peter 1:6-9
In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while
you have had to suffer various trials,
so that the genuineness of your faith—
being more precious than gold that, though perishable,
is tested by fire—may be found to result
in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
Although you have not seen him, you love him;
and even though you do not see him now,
you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,
for you are receiving the outcome of your faith,
the salvation of your souls.

parables as subversive act: “God! a Samaritan?”

good-samaritan

(http://www.blog.wildemeyer.com/search/label/Amy%20Watts)

Responsive Call to Worship
Division and divisiveness are easy.
Rejection,
denunciation, and vilification are easy.
Exclusion is easy.
Blame is easy.
Enemies are easy.
Not easy to deal with, of course.
Easy to allow,
and then to blame and exclude—
denounce, vilify, reject.
We, as those who follow God in the way of Jesus,
however,
are not called to easy.
And what seems easy
is often only so in the short term.
We are rather called
to transformation and possibility.
We are called to grace.
We are called to love.
It’s not easy,
but this way lies hope.

Meditations
Love is the only force
capable
of transforming an enemy
into a friend.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

It takes a great deal of bravery
to stand up to our enemies,
but just as much
to stand up to our friends.
— J.K. Rowling

If you want to make peace with your enemy,
you have to work with your enemy.
Then he [or she] becomes your partner.
— Nelson Mandela

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Reading from the Old Testament
Exodus 23:1-9
You shall not spread a false report.
You shall not join hands with the wicked
to act as a malicious witness.
You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing;
when you bear witness in a lawsuit,
you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice;
nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit.
When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray,
you shall bring it back.
When you see the donkey of one who hates you
lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free,
you must help to set it free.
You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor
in their lawsuits. Keep far from a false charge,
and do not kill the innocent or those in the right,
for I will not acquit the guilty.
You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials,
and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.
You shall not oppress a resident alien;
you know the heart of an alien,
for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Reading from the New Testament
Luke 10:25-37
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.
‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’
He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength,
and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’
And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer;
do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus,
‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied,
‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho,
and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him,
and went away, leaving him half dead.
Now by chance a priest was going down that road;
and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him,
passed by on the other side.
But a Samaritan while traveling came near him;
and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.
He went to him and bandaged his wounds,
having poured oil and wine on them.
Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn,
and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii,
gave them to the innkeeper, and said,
“Take care of him; and when I come back,
I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor
to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’
He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Witness of the Open Canon
Sting, “Russians,” 1985

In Europe and America there’s a growing feeling of hysteria.
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets.
MIster Krushchev said, “We will bury you.”
I don’t subscribe to this point of view.
It’d be such an ignorant thing to do
If the Russians love their children too.
How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?
There is no monopoly on common sense
On either side of the political fence.
We share the same biology, regardless of ideology.
Believe me when I say to you,
I hope the Russians love their children too

There is no historical precedent
To put the words in the mouth of the president?
There’s no such thing as a winnable war,
It’s a lie we don’t believe anymore.
Mister Reagan says, “We will protect you.”
I don’t subscribe to this point of view.
Believe me when I say to you,
I hope the Russians love their children too
We share the same biology, regardless of ideology.
But what might save us, me and you,
Is if the Russians love their children too

Witness of the Living Word
It’s a familiar Jesus story—
one of the most familiar.
And it’s been absorbed into culture like none other—
assimilated into the vernacular.
There is legislation named after it—
not to mention hospitals.
Ben Rodriguez just had surgery there this past week—
at Good Sam, as it’s called,
over there on Loch Raven Boulevard and Belvedere.

It’s a straightforward story—
really doesn’t need much in the way of commentary.

Other than maybe a little context—
much of which many of you already know.
And we’re not even going to consider
the frame of the story this morning, just the story itself.
So we could note that it’s a certain anthropos,
we read in the Greek—
which could mean a specific man,
but could also mean a human being.
Because anthropology is not the study of particular men, is it?
but of human beings.
There was a human being in the ditch.
We could remind each other of the specifics—
of that road from Jerusalem down to Jericho—
18 miles through the desolate Judean mountains—
dropping from some 2500 feet above sea level
to some 825 feet below.
We don’t really need to remind each other of how dangerous life can be;
we know all too well what human beings do to each other.
We could note that the priest and the levite passing by
set up an expected third passer-by,
whom we expect to do what the others, for whatever reason, did not.
We could call into question interpretations
that call Judaism into question
rather than two men who didn’t live up to the teachings of their own faith.
We could explore all that—
and more,

but the point of the parables
was … well, less that they made some point,
as that they made their impact felt.
Parables were and should be less about the head
and more about the gut.

And so this story’s not about robbers—
about the dangers of life—
what we all too easily believe people do to each other.
It’s not a story about the priest and the levite—
the Jewish religion—
its purity laws.
Nor is this a story about a samaritan, good or otherwise.

None of that’s what gets us in the gut.

Now there are … what shall we call them?
gutty dimensions?
to all of that:
to the dangers of our lives—
what we do to each other
(and depending on what’s just happened somewhere—
what’s in the news—that can hit hard,
but we forget it’s always somewhere).
There’s a gutty dimension to religious leaders
who don’t do what they’re supposed to—
don’t live in the way you would expect them to—
who focus on money or judgement or anger—on small—
and let their own faith down.
And we’re all moved by acts of unexpected goodness—
exceptional compassion.
Nonetheless.
Not what the story’s about.

Here’s another clue as to what it’s really about:
if the story were to go on,
how would it—how would it go on?
We wouldn’t follow the priest, the levite, or the samaritan, would we?
The narrative trajectory is into the reaction and response of the one
who was beaten and robbed.
So this story is clearly about a person who was in a ditch, a Jew
who wakes up
to discover—
what?
Not just what happened while he was unconscious,
but also that he now faces a critical decision—
to keep living as he had been—ignoring what happened,
or to make a fundamental change to his own perspectives and views—
to reorient his reality.

Because he wakes up confronted with the fact,
that he was saved by someone he wouldn’t want to admit saved him—
saved by someone who would make him think,
“It might be better if he hadn’t saved me—if I hadn’t been saved.
I can’t believe what he did to me.”

It is, you see, a misnamed story.
Commonly called the good samaritan,
it might better be called, as our sermon title this morning,
“God! the Samaritan?” (with just such an intonation!)

The trick is to reclaim some of the absolute shock
of those first hearers—
and of that human being who wakes up to wake up—or not.

“Yes, I know what human beings do to each other.
Look what some did to me—
taking my possessions, my dignity, almost my life.
But you’re telling me a samaritan did this?
Look what they do to us—
what they have done to us.”

“According to the Bible, Samaria had an earlier name, Shechem.
It was at Shechem that Jacob’s daughter Dinah was raped….
The second reference to Shechem/Samaria
is Judges 8-9, the story of the false judge Abimelech,
who murders his rivals…
(Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus:
Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi,
[New York: HarperCollins, 2014] 96).
Rapists and murderers.
And, you all probably know this,
Samaritans and Jews each had a temple—
the one in Jerusalem, the other on Mt Gerizim.
128 years before the birth of Jesus,
the Jewish king attacked Samaria and burned down their temple.
Samaritans and Jews both considered themselves
true to the Torah and the other as having deviated from it.
Throughout the gospels we get indications of this division—
Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John.
In Matthew Jesus warns his disciples not to enter Samaritan towns.
“In the chapter preceding our parable (Luke 9:51-56),
Luke recounts that a Samaritan village refused Jesus hospitality”
(Levine, 99). James and John suggest raining down fire.
Josephus recounts both stories of Samaritans killing
Galileans on their way to the pilgrimage festivals,
and of Jews plundering Samaritan villages (Levine, 100).

So this human being confronted with what had been done to him
must decide what to maintain—
and not so much just the same close-minded prejudices
as the accepted, taken for granted cultural norms.
Because here’s another thing to consider:
from what I can tell—
from what I’ve read,
this deep-seated animosity would have had less to do
with just personal experience in the present
than with those cultural norms
rooted in the stories of history and tradition.

So what we have here
is a cultural, national, systemic racism.
Well.
Well well well.

We looked, as you might imagine,
at a lot of images for a bulletin cover.
There are lots and lots of good samaritan images.
Most of them are of someone helping another.
But the help is not what’s most important.
It’s who’s offering it.

So in the image on your bulletin this morning,
note the different ethnicities of the characters.
Notice that the person in the ditch
looks like a cowboy,
while the person extending help looks native.
Notice how the one dressed like a cowboy
(cowboy boots—cowboy hat)
is wrapped in a bright, colorful native looking blanket.
Imagine a cowboy saved by an indian
in a culture in which the only good indian, don’t you know,
is a dead one.

The best stories lure us in
to thinking they’re stories about them
until we realize they’re stories about us.

And then we don’t just feel those stories in our gut,
they hit us in the gut.

Too much, we watch Star Wars and the dark side,
Harry Potter and the death eaters,
the fellowship of the ring and Sauron,
and never see the story in which we live—
never identify the empire in whose shadow we live—
the deep resonance with Revelation—with Scripture.

Whether it’s the Marvel universe
or Independence Day,
we look at aliens
and don’t see ourselves.
Can you believe what we do to each other?

Our fiction seduces us into processing stories as about them
until we realize they are always about us.

Now why is this so important?
Why so important to remember they’re about us?
And why are we thinking of parables as subversive acts?
Why would the subversive element be so important?

Because we are the resistance—
or not.

We are those who recognize the danger
in the stories of our culture.
We are those who recognize how different
the stories of culture are from the stories we tell.
We are those who confront the discrepancy.
We name the risk—
or we don’t.

If we hear the parable aright,
we are undone
to be remade.
Our world is undone
to be remade—
raised to newness of perspective—
newness of wonder and relationship,
commitment and possibility—
to be being redeemed.

Now we can pretend—
the church has historically done a great job pretending—
we can pretend the stories Jesus tells
don’t undo us—don’t undo our culture.
But what we then accept
is what the Jesus stories warn us of,
not what they invite us to.

And it’s not practical.
It’s not even necessarily what we call realistic—
or pragmatic—or safe.
But we are not called to practical
to what’s called realistic—
to pragmatic—to safe.
We are called to love—
in all its extravagance—
its grand gestures—
its hope—
its risk.

I remember proposing to Susie.
We were in Taos, New Mexico—the town square.
And I had planned this—
knew I was going to ask,
and yet I was shaking.
My voice quaked.
Because this was momentous
This question and this answer would change everything.
And it did.

There are moments.
There are moments—
particular questions and answers
that change everything.

The task the calling and the challenge of the church today
is to be a momentous threat to the status quo—
to the powers that be—
to the assumptions and categories and justification of our world.
Not to endorse—promote—approve—justify our culture,
but to question, confront and undermine it—
to sabotage it—
to resist.
To change everything.

And lest you’re overwhelmed or feeling argumentative,
no, we don’t have to resist everything
for everything to change.

And it’s not a call to anarchy I sound—
though you know as well as I,
there are significant parts to our culture
that run counter to our faith affirmations.
Ours is, however, a call to resistance,
not rebellion—
working transformation from within—
but clearly—indubitably
working for change—
to undo what is
that what may be
is other than what is.

We start by acknowledging the critical decision we face—
either to keep living as we too often do—
pretending Jesus is not relevant to our day-to-day living,
or to make a fundamental change to our own perspectives and views—
to reorient our reality.
And not just at a personal level,
but also at a cultural, national level.
We could start with—
oh, I don’t know …
our cultural, national, systemic racism?
There is a danger to our culture
by its very nature and being
that puts us at risk—
that puts at risk who we are called to be.
And so in response
we call ourselves to risk—
to risk who we are called to be.

You are the resistance.

Go with God.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Luke 6:27-36
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also;
and from anyone who takes away your coat
do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you;
and if anyone takes away your goods,
do not ask for them again.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?
For even sinners love those who love them.
If you do good to those who do good to you,
what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.
If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.
But love your enemies, do good, and lend,
expecting nothing in return.
Your reward will be great,
and you will be children of the Most High;
for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“immersed in what’s real,” august 28, 2016

drowning

Responsive Call to Worship
We are all immersed
in what we take for granted
and so don’t see.
Entering the water,
following in the way of Jesus,
we are immersed
in what’s most real—
immersed in truth.
And so, we are those, dripping,
who strive to see what we take for granted—
in the greater context of grace and love
so abundant it steals our breath away,
and we die to illusions of small and separate—
the fatal misperception of a part as apart.

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

1 Corinthians 12:1-31
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters,
I do not want you to be uninformed.
You know that when you were pagans,
you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.
Therefore I want you to understand that no one
speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’
and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;
and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;
and there are varieties of activities,
but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom,
and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,
to another faith by the same Spirit,
to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,
to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy,
to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues,
to another the interpretation of tongues.
All these are activated by one and the same Spirit,
who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
For just as the body is one and has many members,
and all the members of the body, though many, are one body,
so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized
into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—
and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.
If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand,
I do not belong to the body’,
that would not make it any less a part of the body.
And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye,
I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it
any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye,
where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing,
where would the sense of smell be? But as it is,
God arranged the members in the body, each one of them,
as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?
As it is, there are many members, yet one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’,
nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’
On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker
are indispensable, and those members of the body
that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor,
and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect;
whereas our more respectable members do not need this.
But God has so arranged the body,
giving the greater honor to the inferior member,
that there may be no dissension within the body,
but the members may have the same care for one another.
If one member suffers, all suffer together with it;
if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
And God has appointed in the church first apostles,
second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power,
then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership,
various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets?
Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing?
Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.
And I will show you a still more excellent way.

Witness of the Open Canon, i.
David Foster Wallace, from his 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address

There are these two young fish swimming along
and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way,
who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
And the two young fish swim on for a bit,
and then eventually one of them looks over at the other
and goes “What the [heck] is water?”
Of course … the really significant education in thinking
that we’re supposed to get … isn’t really about the capacity to think,
but rather about the choice of what to think about….

The point here is that I think this is one part
of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean.
To be just a little less arrogant.
To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties….
Here is just one example of the total wrongness
of something I tend to be automatically sure of:
everything in my own immediate experience
supports my deep belief
that I am the absolute center of the universe;
the realist, most vivid and important person in existence.
We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness
because it’s so socially repulsive.
But it’s pretty much the same for all of us.
It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.
Think about it: there is no experience you have had
that you are not the absolute center of….

It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work
of somehow altering or getting free of
my natural, hard-wired default setting
which is to be deeply and literally self-centered
and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.
People who can adjust their natural default setting this way
are often described as being “well-adjusted”,
which I suggest to you is not an accidental term….

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
Right now, many of us are immersed in school beginning?
transitions?
new schools?
new grading procedures?
new weather related closing policies?
new teachers and classes and relationships?
signing up for this and that?
paying for this and that?
planning—
lesson plans?
syllabi?
submission deadlines?
proposals?

We are immersed in newness—
even if for many of us it’s within a familiar framework.

Right now, we’re immersed in, can’t help it, politics—
the build-up to the elections—
all the implications of campaign rhetoric and tactics
and divisive partisanship
(and there is something, by the way, true and right about that.
Ours is no privatized spiritual salvation.
Ours is a being redeemed within the redemption of all creation.
It doesn’t get any more political than that).

And we’re always, doesn’t it seem?,
immersed in schedule—
in routine—
our responsibilities—
our commitments—
our pleasures—
fulfilling obligations.

And in all the details—
logistics—
passwords—
bills—
to-dos—
forms to fill out—
to get filled out—
chores.

We’re drowning in stuff—
drowning in debt—
drowning in desire for more stuff—
other stuff—better stuff—newer stuff.

Drowning in media—
in commercials and advertisements—
objectionable objectifications and justifications—
social media—
in the never-ending cycle of posting and wanting to be liked.

Immersed in negativity.

We’re immersed in what’s immediate—
the cough—
the pain in the hip—
the surgery—
the diagnosis—
the waiting—
the treatment.

Immersed in meal planning—
grocery shopping—
food preparation—
bill paying—
as David Foster Wallace called it
the day to day trenches of adult existence”.

Immersed in fears.
Immersed in hopes.
Immersed in memories—
in possibilities and in anticipation—
in what just happened—
in what’s going on right now—
in what’s next.

Immersed in stress—
that for too many turns into anxiety.

From a wider angle—
seeing more than just the self,
we’re immersed in relationships
with colleagues and peers—
working together—
with friends—
working to stay in touch—
to remain relevant.

We’re immersed in family—
trying to do it well—
to be honest—
to love well and laugh hard—
and forgive always—
to surprise—
to enjoy—
to engage—
to include—
to bless—
to love—
trying to do it right—
trying to do it better.

We have to be so intentional, don’t we?
Have to take initiative—keep taking initiative—
working to keep things real.

We are immersed in child care—elder care—
the books and toys and language of children—
the challenges of getting old
(which y’all regularly remind me isn’t for sissies!)—
the amazing gifts and the profound challenges
the elderly can represent for families.
We’re immersed in figuring out solo parenting—
solo adulting—
not having planned on that.

We’re immersed in crises—
one crisis after another.
In Louisiana they’ve been immersed in water—
in Aleppo in dust and blood—
in Italy and Myanmar, in tremors and aftershocks—
rioting in Zimbabwe—
violence in Turkey and Syria—
refugees.
There are so many shootings in our own country we don’t keep track of them—
so many hungry we can’t imagine.
We’re immersed in a systemic racism that still catches us by surprise.
We’re immersed in unjust economic and legal structures.
We’re really a great country with a whole lot that’s pathetic about us,
and to ignore either part of that is to cheapen what’s most real.

We’re immersed in a numbing response to crisis—
overwhelmed by so much need
we can’t pay attention to it all.

We’re immersed, I think, in good intentions—
the best of intentions.

We are, hopefully, immersed in communities—
neighborhoods—
sports—
school—
work—
here.

Depending on what you’re plugged into here,
we’re immersed in worship planning—
immersed in scheduling—
in service ministry—
building and grounds—maintenance—
heating and air—
the baptistry foundation—
the website—
conversation about the role and the future of the Church in our culture—
reflection—
prayer—
worship.

We’re immersed in so much,
it often feels like we’re drowning.
And immersed in what’s real—
drowning in what’s real—
honestly, right?
To be immersed in what’s real
is to not deny
any of the truths that flood our time.

And a lot of that in which we’re immersed is good, right?
But good can take up too much time and energy too!

I remember on several occasions now through the years
hearing Cheryl Duvall advocate for balance in life—
naming the different and important aspects of life
that all need to be acknowledged—
for which we need to find time.

But beyond any such balance
(which is not juggling
too many people these days mistake juggling for balance!),

one of the challenges these days—
maybe it’s always been a challenge,
is how many try and achieve balance
not by assessing where all the time goes,
“Oh, look how much time is going there into that,”
and then by dialing back there and that,
but by amping up everywhere else.

So, if I may ask
what, in your life—
in your drenched, saturated, overwhelmed life
is creative?
life giving?
people enhancing?
spirit refreshing?
joy bringing?
restful?
good?

That’s part of the balancing, yes?
Paul wrote long ago to the faith community at Philippi,
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing,
whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence
and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things”
(Philippians 4:8).
Here’s my question for you this morning:
is that about balance?
Could be—think on these good things as a balance
to everything else coming your way.

But maybe Paul was about more than balance.
He goes on,
“Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received
and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you”
(Philippians 4:9).

What if Paul’s really saying something like
“Live into this story
to know the truth—
the truth that is not about balance,
but about foundation”?

Because foundation is not every moment.
What’s foundational is not all your moments—all your experience,
foundation is rather comprised of the moments you choose to value—
the affirmations you choose to make.
We build our lives
on the foundation to which we give our lives.

It’s not that the rest isn’t real—
not that it’s not important—
that it won’t take of your time and energy,
but it’s not as real—
not as true.

Immersed in moments,
and amidst the many moments are the transcendent moments—
that make time stop—
that make the planets stop spinning—
that take our breath away—
little things—
a smile with two teeth gone—the first two lost teeth, right Vera?
Katie Evans celebrated this week
a thank you from someone she helped at work.
It’s when you discover just how much the prayers of others mean

Jay Hogewood is the pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, LA.
They’ve been offering shelter and food to those displaced by the flooding.
Jay writes of a boy named Wendell, no more than 17 years old,
who walked miles in the Baton Rouge heat
down a street with no sidewalk from a questionable part of town
to hand off some pants and shirts,
and to respond to the how-could-it-be-anything-but-suspicious look
with a “They’re clean.”
He had a teddy bear (“I want one of the children to have this.”)
and two one dollar bills he gave to Jay
because as he said, 
“I think you’re showing the love of Jesus”.
We did, by the way, collect almost $700 last Sunday
to go to St John’s United Methodist Church to reimburse them for their expenses—
to allow them to keep showing the love of Jesus,
and you can still contribute toward that, if you wish.

It’s the dog lying down on one foot
as you lean back in your chair and put the other foot on top of her.
It’s two girls amidst the bickering and shrieking
and the difficult trying to figure out
how much too much time on the cell phone is
(we are, by the way, trying to implement a screen sabbath—
for the whole family, no screens on Sundays.
Because if you have to keep checking it,
it’s not the tool, right? You are!
Parenting from the pulpit).
but amidst the stress and frustration of parenting,
to have two girls standing in the front door
making that heart sign with their hands
as you leave for the grocery store.
It’s a baptism—
a commitment.
It is worship and story and song and prayer.
And “it is unimaginably hard to do this,
to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out”.

I usually show up here on Sunday mornings
with my computer and portfolio.
Today I walked in with my swim trunks in my gym bag.
It felt appropriate.
Going to work out.
It is unimaginably hard,
but it really is just about choosing, time and time again,
what moments are going to matter and why—
choosing amidst all that’s real, what story is true—
what truths are foundational.
As we say so often, it’s so simple.
Not easy.
But simple.

Consistency is the challenge.
We are immersed in so much that’s real,
will we consistently choose what’s true?

Hear this.
Remember it.
We are immersed in love
(remind yourselves of this often—
even if you don’t think you need to—
maybe especially if you think you don’t need to!)
We are immersed in blessing.
We are immersed in grace.
We are immersed in joy—
in gratitude—
in wonder.
We are immersed in God.

And that’s not about balance.
That’s about the truth we may take for granted—
the foundation on which we seek to create balance.

And church—faith—
is about helping us balance, yes—
modeling better balance for ourselves and our culture—
absolutely,
but also about affirming what’s more important than balance—
what’s foundation.

And we get to drown in that—
to be raised to newness of life—
life that is abundant—
life that is everlasting.
Thanks be to God.

Witness of the Open Canon, ii.
David Foster Wallace, from his 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education,
of learning how to be well-adjusted.
You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.
You get to decide what to worship.
Because here’s something else that’s weird but true:
in the day-to day trenches of adult life,
there is actually no such thing as atheism.
There is no such thing as not worshipping.
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship….
If you worship money and things,
if they are where you tap real meaning in life,
then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.
It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure
and you will always feel ugly….
The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid,
and you will need ever more power over others
to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect,
being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud,
always on the verge of being found out.
But the insidious thing about these forms of worship
is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious.
They are default settings.
They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into,
day after day, getting more and more selective
about what you see and how you measure value
without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you
from operating on your default settings,
because the so-called real world of men and money and power
hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration
and craving and worship of self.
Our own present culture has harnessed these forces
in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth
and comfort and personal freedom….

… You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish.
But please don’t just dismiss it ….
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.
It is about the real value of a real education,
which has almost nothing to do with knowledge,
and everything to do with simple awareness;
awareness of what is so real and essential,
so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time,
that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is water.” “This is water.”
It is unimaginably hard to do this,
to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.
Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true:
your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.
I wish you way more than luck.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,
but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers,
and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,
but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body
so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end;
as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.
For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;
but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child,
I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult,
I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly,
but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part;
then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love.